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Newsletter 766
10 December 2011


1. Feedback, notes and comments.

2. Weird Words: Myrmidon.

3. Wordface.

4. Questions and Answers: Toodle-pip.

5. Sic!

1. Feedback, notes and comments

Gremial Dan Perlman commented, “It was a surprise to see gremial referred to as a rare word. Here in South America, I see it every day. But that’s in Spanish, in which historically it refers to a guild: professional, trade, academic or wizardly. Today both words are used to refer primarily to trade unions and professional associations.” Erik Midelfort noted that Gremium exists in German in the sense of a board, panel, or committee. Both languages have acquired their terms from the same Latin sources as our gremial. Patrick Martin added, “I seem to remember from my Oxford days 50 years ago that a ‘gremial member of the House’ meant a Student (Fellow) of Christ Church who had also been an undergraduate there. Since then I have always referred to any cat we owned whose mother we had also owned as a gremial cat or kitten.”

Mike Brian commented that the Latin root of gremial is especially associated with this time of year through a traditional Christmas carol, In Dulci Jubilo (In Sweet Rejoicing). This was originally a macaronic composition in German and Latin, still widely known in an English rendering of the German by Robert Lucas de Pearsall: “In dulci jubilo / Let us our homage shew; / Our heart’s joy reclineth / In praesepio / And like a bright star shineth, / Matris in gremio. / Alpha es et O.” Matris in gremio may be translated as “in the mother’s lap”.

New words in French Several readers felt I had strained too hard to find an origin for the neologism bête seller in the phrase bête noire. It would have been simpler, they felt, to seek it in the common slang sense of bête for a person who is stupid, like a dumb animal.

Weight The Reverend Carl Bowers wrote, “I doubt that the opinion sense of weigh in derives from boxers weighing in before a fight, since that procedure is to meet an objective standard; a boxer who is overweight for a weight classification is disqualified from competing. More likely it derives from adding one’s weight to one side of a contest, either as opinion or argument added to one side of the scales of debate, or physically as for example adding one’s weight to one team in a tug-of-war.”

2. Weird Words: Myrmidon/ˈməːmᵻd(ə)n/ Help with IPA

It is not good to be called a myrmidon. It is not a term of respect. Officious and aggressive police officers sometimes have it thrown at them by more literate commentators, as do holders of public office who are carrying out unpopular policies:

Their concern is that an unprecedented spending spree by our 535 noble members of Congress, supported by the myrmidons at the Fed, will force interest rates higher and bond values to fall.

The Herald News (Joliet, Illinois), 13 May 2011.

It is less effective than it might be as a term of abuse because it requires the addressee to have at least a smattering of classical knowledge. According to the Greek storyteller Homer in the Iliad, the Myrmidons were a warlike people of Thessaly; they were renowned for their mindless loyalty to Achilles, their king, who led them in the Trojan War. Greek legends about where they came from played on a fanciful link of their name with Greek myrmēkes, ants. One suggested that Zeus created them from a nest of ants.

The word has existed in English since medieval times but over time has become progressively less reputable. For Shakespeare, myrmidons were faithful followers, the members of a bodyguard or retinue. A century later they had become hired ruffians or mercenaries. By the nineteenth century they had sunk somewhat lower to be opportunistic supporters of some person or organisation. Today a myrmidon is often an unscrupulous subordinate:

But not even the police will forever be able to ignore the question of whether or not Rupert Murdoch, always a keen reader of his own newspapers, knew from the first day they did it that his myrmidons were lifting illicit stuff for their piddling stories.

Daily Telegraph, 16 Jul. 2011.

3. Wordface

Megan Phelps and Anthea Fleming of Australia were listening to an ABC broadcast of the cricket test match between their country and New Zealand last weekend and heard the commentator use marmalised, which roughly means “utterly destroyed” or “totally demolished”. They asked me for more information. Marmalise is still known in Britain, though less than it was when the Liverpudlian comedian Ken Dodd popularised it in the 1960s. It’s long-established Liverpool-Irish slang, said to be from marmalade plus pulverise, and often occurs in phrases such as “I’ll marmalise yer”, meaning “I shall chastise you severely”, or words to that effect. Roy Hattersley, a former deputy leader of the Labour Party, once told how Harold Wilson, Labour prime minister in the 1960s, replied to a query over lunch by Dom Mintoff, the then PM of Malta. Asked how he proposed to respond to an attack by his Conservative opponents at Question Time in the House of Commons that day, “Wilson paused before he gave his carefully considered answer. ‘In the words of Ken Dodd, our great national comedian, I shall marmalise ’em.’ And he did.”

4. Questions and Answers: Toodle-pip

Q From Roger White: I’ve just looked up the origin of toodily pip. I found only toodle-oo, which is said to be derived from the French tout a l’heure, which is not convincing. The French term is incomplete since I’d expect there to be an à before tout. Otherwise it simply means “soon”, whereas toodle-oo means goodbye. Furthermore the French phrase doesn’t sound much like the English expression. And where did the pip come from?

A Dictionaries often do cautiously suggest à tout a l’heure as the origin of toodle-oo, a terribly dated item of British slang that most people will have only come across in the works of P G Wodehouse. He didn’t know toodily pip, which is a very recent form, almost solely found in discussion forums online. It seems to be a mistaken or corrupted version of toodle-pip, contemporary with toodle-oo.

Do not disregard a French connection too quickly. British English speakers are renowned for their ability to mangle foreign tongues, French in particular. Any nation that can turn ça ne fait rien into san fairy ann, as British soldiers did in France in the First World War, is quite capable of transmogrifying à tout a l’heure into toodle-oo. But it isn’t the only possibility: another potential source that the experts mention is toot, the sound of a coach’s horn signalling its departure. This may not be so daft as you might think, as we’ll see in a minute.

There are other late nineteenth-century British slang terms of similar kind, such as pip-pip. This is an example from the master:

“Well, it’s worth trying,” said Reggie. “I’ll give it a whirl. Toodleoo!” “Good-bye.” “Pip-pip!” Reggie withdrew.

A Damsel in Distress, by P G Wodehouse, 1920.

We may reasonably assume that the pip in toodle-pip is the same as in pip-pip; toodle-pip might even be a blend of toodle-oo and pip-pip, though it’s impossible to tell from the recorded evidence.

Pip-pip arose as an imitation of the sound of the air horn fitted to early bicycles — the sort with a trumpet and a rubber bulb. They were around during the cycling craze near the end of the nineteenth century alongside the modern bell. This will give you the idea:

Pip-pip. Hue and cry after any one, but generally a youth in striking bicycle costumery. Onomatope of the horn warning which sometimes replaces the bell of the bike.

Passing English of the Victorian Era, by J Redding Ware, 1909. You may gather from bicycle costumery that Mr Ware wasn’t a fan of cyclists, or perhaps just of their style of clothing.

This entry was somewhat behind the times, as pip-pip had by then already begun to be recorded as a slangy alternative to goodbye, presumably from shouting it after a retreating cyclist. Some of the usages, such as the Wodehouse one, suggest that it might also be an acknowledgement to a goodbye from somebody else or a general cry of encouragement. A precursor, pip-pop, was known from a century earlier as an imitation (an onomatope in Mr Ware’s vocabulary) of small-arms gunfire. It hints that toodle-oo could indeed be from toot, as a similar imitative.

However, it’s sadly the truth that nobody knows now exactly what was in the minds of the inventors of these curious exclamations.

5. Sic!

• A report on ABC News on 30 November about a lawsuit contained a typo (since corrected): “It was filed in the Philadelphia Court of Common please.” Robert Wake wondered if there might be a counterbalancing Court of Thank You.

• “What a difference a hyphen would have made,” Helen Thursh wrote, in reference to a headline in the issue of the Science Daily Newsletter of 5 December: “Bitter sensitive children eat more vegetables with help of dip”.

• “Duh!” was roughly Richard Newall’s view of a headline in the Sydney Morning Herald’s news e-mail on 5 December: “Teen Dies After Fatal Stabbing”.

• Another curious headline appeared the same day in the Mail Online, John Neave and Doc Taylor tell us: “Woman put voodoo curse on ex-boyfriend before battering him to death with new lover.”

• Anita Cohen writes: “I recently received one of those crazy e-mails telling me that I’m the beneficiary of the will of some person I’ve never heard of. This one informed me that I qualified because ‘you bear the same surname as the diseased’. I hope it’s not contagious.”

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Saturday 10 December 2011

Advice on copyright

The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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